The financial and artistic success of “Creed,” a “Rocky” sequel that was thoughtful and character-driven in a way that most “Rocky” sequels aren’t, inspired optimism that subsequent chapters would follow suit. At the center was a dynamic new character, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of Apollo Creed, trying to make his mark on the world outside his father’s shadow. The dramatic possibilities were endless.
It was nice while it lasted. “Creed II” retreats to the safety of familiarity, with Creed fighting Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of the boxer (Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago) who killed Apollo in the ring back in “Rocky IV.” Here they had a chance to take the franchise in new directions, and instead they go back to relying on the past. Are you surprised that Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone, co-wrote the screenplay? Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed “Creed,” is gone, with Stallone and Juel Taylor on screenplay duty (revising earlier efforts by Cheo Hodari Coker and Sascha Penn), and direction by Steven Caple Jr., who at least manages to recreate the intimate, dramatic tone Coogler set in the last movie.
So it’s a step down from its predecessor, but hey, aren’t we all? “Creed II” works well enough as yet another “Rocky” sequel. In fact, it’s like two sequels in one: Creed becoming the heavyweight champion, which might reasonably have been the climax of “Creed II,” occurs in the first few minutes, putting him in a position to be challenged by Viktor Drago. It seems the Drago family fell on hard times after Apollo’s death and Ivan’s subsequent defeat at the gloves of Rocky Balboa, becoming pariahs in their native Russia. Viktor, trained since birth to one day avenge the family name, taunts Creed by saying the only reason he’d turn the fight down is if he’s afraid history will repeat itself. And thus Adonis is goaded by his masculine ego into taking the fight, a fight that was proposed as a means of soothing two other men’s bruised pride. If it weren’t for fragile male egos, the movie wouldn’t exist. Although I guess the same is true of boxing in general.
Anyway, the drama outside the ring involves Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) becoming domesticated, having the life events you expect a young couple to have in a sequel. Bianca’s hearing is still gradually failing, and she worries she’ll pass it to the next generation. Adonis wants to move back to L.A., where he grew up, and where his adoptive mother (Phylicia Rashad) still lives. (If you, like me, are whisked back to your childhood when you see Phylicia Rashad play a perfect mom, you’ll be glad to know she has more screen time than she did in “Creed” and interacts with more characters than just Adonis.) All the talk of family, including Rocky’s efforts to make contact with his estranged son, is warm and homey, if not always totally compelling.
In the ring, the action is impeccable and visceral, the fights expertly choreographed. Viktor, like his father before him, is a hulking beast, bigger and taller than Adonis — but Creed is a speedy little devil, ducking punches and scampering like a rabbit. These sequences are thrilling to watch, though I felt no investment beyond the general sense that I’d like Adonis to win. The Dragos aren’t really portrayed as villains, so there’s no “right” outcome. Perhaps “Creed III” will provide Adonis with a meaningful opponent, where there’s more on the line than not wanting people to think he’s chicken. (Note: It should not involve Mr. T.)
B- (2 hrs., 10 min.; )